They weren’t due back at training until next week, but the Waratahs’ national team contingent braved a sweltering Sydney morning to display their commitment to turning the struggling Super Rugby franchise around.
The Michael Cheika era was in full swing at Centennial Park on Monday, the new coach casting a watchful eye as his crop of stars took part in a torturous series of running drills.
There they were, Berrick Barnes, Benn Robinson and Drew Mitchell amongst them, sweating it out when they could have just as easily been enjoying a day at the beach.
Cheika calls them the “chasing pack”, with the “lead group” containing the likes of young gun Bernard Foley and AFL convert Israel Folau having already gone through the gruelling pre-season program.
Despite coming back of their own volition a week ahead of schedule, there were no favours afforded the group – which was missing only Adam Ashley-Cooper, Sekope Kepu, Wycliff Palu and Tatafu Polota-Nau of the franchise’s European tourists.
“I didn’t speak to any of them, they just wanted to (come back)”, Cheika said.
“It shows the respect for their teammates and that is the most important thing in this game.
“The players have been really open to a different way of working.
“These sessions, a lot of the education’s done on the run, on the field, that puts pressure to learn.
“There’s obviously a whole new game shape that they’re playing, there’s a lot of new things … they want to get better, you can see that.”
Said Mitchell of the early return: “It was an individual decision.
“I had a fair bit of time off last year through my ankle and that sort of stuff – in terms of conditioning I’m probably a little bit behind most guys so it was important for me to get back.”
Mitchell’s eagerness may also have something to do with the competition for places ahead of the Super Rugby season opener on February 23.
While admitting the Test stars had some credit to burn, Cheika is desperate to create competition for places.
The outside backs are particularly deep, with the likes of Australian representatives Lachie Turner, Mitchell and Ashley-Cooper facing heat from Tom Kingston, Peter Betham and Folau.
“You just make them compete against each other – that’s it,” Cheika said.
“Everyone’s really clear with the criteria for judgement which we have.
“The idea is to build a squad of depth … if you want to try to be the best team you’ve got to have that.”
Cheika is also casting his eye over potential captains.
Incumbent Robinson – who inherited the role as a result of former skipper Rocky Elsom’s injury ruined 2012 season – has already stated his desire to retain the captaincy.
“You’ve got to see who wants it the most,” Cheika said of the captaincy.
“The leadership’s earned, it’s not a given.
“A lot of the guys are back and running around now – we’ll see who wants to earn the respect to be the boss.”